Twelve months ago the world was astonished by the sudden crumbling of totalitarian rule live on television as President Ben Ali fled Tunisia and mass protests erupted in Egypt. Legions of so called “experts” scrambled to revise their scripts and Western diplomats discovered their “realpolitik” had not been very realistic. The triumph of hope over fear was the theme tune for what was dubbed the Arab Spring. And the tremors shook the complacency of rulers around the globe.
There was of course a backlash. But all was changed, changed utterly. And human rights defenders (HRDs), those who work to protect the rights of others, were key actors in the movements to secure justice and accountability.
Mass protests spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt to Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Western Sahara and Yemen. In Libya this led to a bloody armed conflict and in Syria it led to particularly brutal repression which is still ongoing.
Inspired by the Arab Spring and exasperated by decades of corrupt authoritarian government, civil society mobilised in many countries in other regions of the world, particularly in Africa. Protests, either linked to elections or to high commodity prices, erupted in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, and Uganda. The demonstrations, which continued with varied intensity throughout the year, were met with unnecessary and disproportionate force by the police, which also violently prevented journalists from covering the events. In Malawi mass protests on 20 and 21 July were violently suppressed by the police and resulted in the death of 19 protesters and injuries to hundreds.
The Arab Spring provided the Chinese Government with both the motive and the opportunity to launch a crackdown on HRDs working in a variety of different areas. With the attention of the world elsewhere, and partly in response to anonymous online calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to take place in China, the authorities took the chance to target scores of HRDs who had been at the forefront of human rights defence in China. Up to 200 HRDs were questioned, harassed, severely threatened, beaten, detained, or simply disappeared. At least 24 human rights defenders, including 11 human rights lawyers, were forcibly disappeared for time periods ranging from a few days in some cases to over six months in others.
It is testimony to the fear of the Chinese authorities that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains in prison on a charge of ‘endangering state security’, while his wife is still under (illegal) house arrest. Also under house arrest is blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Chen, along with his wife, mother and six-year old daughter, is being kept prisoner in his own home. Chen and his wife have been severely beaten, and all attempts by fellow HRDs to visit him have been unsuccessful and many have been met with violence. Notwithstanding this, the organisation of an online grassroots campaign by HRDs to visit Chen and to raise greater awareness about his case and the injustices involved was an encouraging development. The American actor Christian Bale was assaulted when he tried to visit Chen in December. The campaign inside China has highlighted the increasingly important role that social media are playing in the defence of human rights.
Around the world human rights defenders have used blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to share information and mobilise notwithstanding the inherent insecurity of such platforms. Indeed Syria unbanned Facebook in the early days of the protests in an apparent attempt to gather information on protesters. Governments also restricted the use of more traditional communications technologies to pre-empt protests: for example, SMS access to Twitter was suspended in Cameroon in March. Bloggers as well as HRDs and journalists using the Internet for their work were arrested or put under surveillance in Bahrain, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Vietnam. But the lesson for authoritarian rulers around the world was that it is no longer possible to hide the truth.
In Bahrain doctors were arrested, tortured and prosecuted because they confirmed reports of the killings of protesters and deaths in custody from torture. In Syria human rights defenders have been able to get out pictures of the violent crackdown on protests. In Asia Bloggers and media activists using the internet to raise human rights awareness or expose abuses were harassed, arrested and under heavy surveillance in Burma, China, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Websites of human rights organisations were blocked or hacked. Paulus Le Van Son, a prominent Vietnamese blogger, was arrested and held without access to his family and lawyer since September for writing about human rights.
Instances of violent dispersal of protests and refusal of permission to hold assemblies also occurred in many countries in Europe and Central Asia, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and Uzbekistan. In the latter, faced with a de facto ban on protests, human rights defenders challenged the authorities and organised several small demonstrations: they were violently dispersed by the police, participants were arrested, questioned and sentenced to the payment of fines. Protests were also violently dispersed in Latin America. In Cuba the authorities launched a crackdown reminiscent of the 2003 mass arrests of human rights defenders and opposition activists.
In Belarus, faced with the systematic denial of permission to hold public meetings and police repression of unauthorised protests, civil society engaged in so-called ‘silent demonstrations’, spontaneous gatherings often organised through social networking sites. These protests were also eventually met with violence and arrests. In the absence of any applicable criminal offence, participants were sentenced for the administrative offence of hooliganism. In November, the Law on Public Gatherings was amended so as to permit the use of criminal charges against silent demonstrations. The authorities also prosecuted and imprisoned Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Centre Viasna because he had received foreign funding for their human rights work.
Sadly 2011 was sadly also a year where human rights defenders continued to be targeted and killed because of their work on behalf off others. In Brazil, one of the few countries with a governmental protection programme for human rights defenders, five HRDs or family members were murdered as a result of their activism. HRDs and journalists were also killed in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, and Yemen. These killings were across a broad range of human rights issues: those who lost their lives included environmentalists, trade unionists, journalists, HRDs working on sexual orientation and gender identity, indigenous issues, corruption, women’s rights, land, and community rights.
Virtually all abuses against human rights defenders were committed in a climate of absolute impunity, across all countries and regions. In Russia, two years after the killing of human rights defenders Natalya Estemirova, Zarema Sadulaeva and her husband Alik Dzhabrailov, no effective investigation has been carried out. Similarly, no justice has been delivered in Burundi for the murder of Ernest Manirumwa in 2009, despite an intense national campaign and the involvement of foreign experts in the investigation. Those who remained engaged in campaigning for justice in these murders were targeted and harassed.
Against this background of inspiring heroism and brutal repression Front Line Defenders has continued to work together with human rights defenders to provide practical support for their security and protection. During 2011 we provided 189 security grants, totalling €488,748, for practical protection measures to human rights defenders and their families, including 97 emergency relocations. We issued 256 urgent appeals on 594 human rights defenders at risk in 70 countries. We provided security training, including specific training on digital security, to more than 470 human rights defenders.
Sometimes the scale of suffering we encounter as we try to help human rights defenders can be overwhelming. The brutal torture and imprisonment of our friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Alkhawaja in Bahrain has made very personal the repressive backlash human rights defenders have faced in 2011. But Abdulhadi from his prison cell continues to stand by his principles and work for the rights of other detainees. There is more repression because there are more human rights defenders, working in more countries, holding more of the powerful to account.
So what might 2012 bring us? We have just celebrated the Chinese New Year with an increased number of human rights defenders in prison. Indications are that repression will increase as we enter what will be a year of leadership transition at the top of the Communist Party. In 2011 public protests grew in spite of the repression and this is likely to continue into 2012, particularly if the economy slows.
Putin is likely to be re-elected in Russia but those protesters who somewhat surprised themselves by finding their voice in 2011 will not be giving him an easy ride. In Sudan Bashir is desperately trying to cling to power and evade the International Criminal Court with military attacks in the peripheral regions including South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. But the inability of his weakened Government to deliver clean water in Khartoum may ignite protests closer to the centre. In Venezuela the democratically elected Hugo Chavez lurches ever more erratically towards authoritarianism and questions about his health could also fuel instability. There are signs of hope in Burma mingled with doubts about how far the Generals will go. And will the Arab Spring finally reach Saudi Arabia whose rulers mixed brutal repression with cash handouts in 2011. In all of these countries and more it will be human rights defenders who are on the front line working on behalf of victims and pressing for justice. As the famous Chinese curse would have it, we are condemned to live in interesting times.
Front Line Defenders published its annual report on the state of human rights defenders in the world on 26th January 2012.